You Better Think (think!) About Estate Planning

The Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, died in August 2018. Five years later, the battle over her estate ended after a two-day lawsuit that should allow her estate to finally settle.

At issue was that Franklin left two wills behind, both handwritten (one tucked in a notebook under a couch cushion), and they were contradictory.

Initially, her four surviving adult children thought there was no will since they couldn’t find one. Dying without a will is called intestate. According to Michigan law, her estate would be divided equally among the four children.

Within a few months, however, two wills were located. The first will, written in 2010, provided allowances for each of the children and said that two of them had to take business classes before they could collect money from the estate.

In the 2014 will, three of her sons would receive equal shares of her music royalties (the fourth son has an unspecified mental illness and wouldn’t receive the royalties but will receive support from the other three brothers). One of the three sons to receive the royalties would also receive her house, cars, and other personal property worth $4.1 million.

Ultimately, a jury concluded that the 2014 will was valid, even though it was the one found in the couch and was signed, in part, with a smiley face.

Interestingly, Franklin’s estate was worth $18 million, not including the value of future earnings from her music catalog. However, besides not having a formal estate plan, Franklin died with substantial IRS debt. In 2021, the estate agreed to pay off $8 million in back taxes and penalties (to be paid from revenue from future royalties).

I’m not a lawyer, but there is a lot we can learn from the ninth greatest artist of all time (according to Rolling Stone, although the list seems off with Little Richard at eighth).

First and foremost, hire a lawyer and have a formal estate plan.

While it’s true that her estate plan ‘worked,’ she could have saved her family a lot of time, trouble, and money if she had a formal estate plan.

According to the New York Times, the brothers didn’t make eye contact after the trial and stopped speaking to their cousin, the original executor. It’s been five years of fighting, and although I never read the legal fees, I am sure they were substantial.

Will the brother with special needs be taken care of? Perhaps so, but there could be further strife if the brothers disagree on how to support him. A trust could have resolved this potential issue.

Much of this could have stayed private if an estate lawyer had drawn up a trust. Trusts are private documents, whereas wills are public.

It’s probably just luck that her handwritten will was successful. Only about half of states consider handwritten wills (or holographic wills) valid. Michigan is one, but I suspect she hadn’t checked into that before she died.

A formal estate plan drafted by an estate lawyer could have resolved these issues and debt with other contingencies. For example, Franklin died of pancreatic cancer, and although I never saw mention of it, there could have been a need for a power of attorney or medical directive during her sickness or at the end of her life.

Many people, including celebrities, don’t keep their estates in order despite what’s at stake. When I hear horror stories from estate lawyers or read about stars like Aretha Franklin, I think it isn’t hard to get your estate in order.

You have to think about unpleasant things, but it seems worth it to prevent your family from fighting and ensure your wishes are taken care of.  It’s worth the time and money to do it right.